Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The World Of Extreme Happiness/Goodman Theatre

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In the couple of years since I saw “The World of Extreme Happiness” as part of Goodman’s New Stages festival, the humor has become a little sharper, the production has grown notably grander, but the tone has remained personal, almost intimate, despite the sweeping topics it addresses. To demonstrate the inescapable dreariness of a peasant girl in rural China whose dreams of financial success turn toward loftier horizons, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s script exhibits nearly as many facets as the oft-mentioned, ever-changing Monkey King. Family melodrama, broad humor, sloganeering and a little gore combine to reveal country girl Sunny’s dream of modern urban life as a horrendous and hopeless nightmare.

If you’re past a certain age in Sunny’s stark and bleak contemporary China, you’ve already been crushed and or compromised, if you weren’t corrupt all along. Sound like a place you know? Some are crushed and corrupted in comfort—like the affluent, powerful pair whose machinations lead to the PR stunt with which this show climaxes—while those less fortunate compromise for the smallest reward: a coercive hand job on the factory floor, or some cash in exchange for marrying off your daughter. The young’uns we meet, aiming for the stars, meet degradation of the lowest order. Suckered in by their own dreams, and the hucksterism of upward mobility, today’s youth from the country are no less grist for the big-city mill than the victims of Mao that the crusty old factory hand bemoans. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brigadoon/Goodman Theatre

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Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren


A few days ago, a friend and I were joking about the plot of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” when he quipped, “What a silly story,” then, quickly realizing what he was saying in the same thought, he added “unlike most musicals.” Exactly. The tale of a mystical town in the Scottish Highlands that only appears for one day every hundred years is hardly an outlier in a world of singing and dancing cats or workingmen who build big ships not for money but for metaphor. But it is quaint, with its midcentury notions of utopianism grounded in a rustic, rural time capsule. And it is strange, its peculiarities foregrounded in director Rachel Rockwell’s stunning Goodman debut. But its strangeness holds its charm for me, with the town of “Brigadoon” as a stand-in for a particular vision of heaven, and the incursion of us Americans resembling the Fall From Grace in the Garden of Eden. (Other things I found swirling around in my brain in some of the slower parts, which this imperfect work has,  included the even-sillier “Gilligan’s Island,” with its comic—as opposed to tragic here—explorations of the challenges of mating in a small-sample population without mobility, and the musical “Riverdance,” which I admittedly only know through the incessant television commercials that once ran. Rockwell’s lords of the dance, though, are Scottish, not Irish, with tartan kilts, bagpipes and Highland dancing, which she blends deftly with ballet, leading to some mesmerizing choreography, most notably in the festive “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Brigadoon It: Rachel Rockwell’s Goodman Debut Brings a Classic Out of the Fog

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Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for "Brigadoon"/Photo

Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for “Brigadoon”/Photo

By Dennis Polkow

Director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell seems to be the lady with the golden touch, the one with an uncanny talent for taking old classic shows that you thought you knew and giving them an entirely new luster.

Recognition for Rockwell’s extraordinary body of work via a run of musical theater successes at suburban venues such as Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre and Paramount Theatre is the milestone of Rockwell making her downtown directing debut at Goodman Theatre.

“It feels really good,” says Rockwell on a lunch break from rehearsals for “Brigadoon” at Goodman, “and it’s not lost on me at all what a big deal this is. I never worked at the Goodman when I was an actor and I always wanted to. And here I am!” she says with a genuine enthusiasm tempered with a charming humility.

“My Mom worked here,” Rockwell continues. “She was the Oracle in Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Pericles.’ The other thing I am so proud of is that the Playbill will be filled with names that will say, ‘making their Goodman debut.’ Almost every name. These are some of the finest musical theater talents in the city of Chicago who never get to work in their own theater district! That to me, is a real coup, that all of these brilliant people are doing a musical at the Goodman in this theater district for the first time, and we’re all doing this together!” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Venus in Fur/Goodman Theatre

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Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins/Photo: Liz Lauren

Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins/Photo: Liz Lauren


Playwright David Ives has made his reputation with smart translation-adaptations of classic French works, most recently his retooling of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” as “The School For Lies,” which played at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2012. That one of the two characters in his latest work, Thomas, is adapting Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous mid-nineteenth-century novel, “Venus in Furs,” and goes to great lengths to clarify, in conversations with the other character, Vanda, the difference between author and adaptor, which eventually raises questions about why did Thomas (and by extension Ives?), in fact, choose this particular novel—a work that literally gave masochism its name—makes the authorship here all the more interesting. 

But you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the production at the Goodman Theatre. A clever twist on the old play within a play, this brisk and entertaining two-hander manages to pack complexity of structure and big ideas into ninety-seven uninterrupted minutes. A seemingly clueless ditz of a young actress shows up insanely late to audition for a low-budget production of a new play based on a Victorian erotic novella, “Venus in Furs.” Unrelenting, she convinces the adaptor, the only person left in the rehearsal room from a day of unproductive auditions, to read with her. Like any good actor, she transforms with a script in her hands, in this case into a sophisticated and eloquent seductress and, before long, the characters on stage are becoming the characters on the page, as “real life” in the rehearsal room merges into the imagined life of the play.

This might be Ives’ most accomplished work yet: in adapting “Venus in Furs” this way, as an interactive audition, the playwright crafts an explicit and layered dialogue on the work’s message. Is the novella a nuanced reading of a very complex romantic relationship? Or is the masochist played by Thomas just a misogynist, hiding behind sexual deviancy as a cloak for a traditional male domination story? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Buzzer/Goodman Theatre

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Eric Lynch/Photo: Liz Lauren

Eric Lynch/Photo: Liz Lauren


At its best, theater uses its characters and their stories as vessels for big ideas, for provocations that make audiences think about new concepts, or to consider old notions in new ways. And, at its best, it does so organically, with characters and a narrative on its own so compelling that the ideas sort of sneak up on the audience. Very few plays reach such ambitious heights, though, and it’s not at all unusual for the narrative to take a back seat to the ideas the playwright’s eager to discuss. 

This is the case with “Buzzer,” now at the Goodman. Jackson is a young black man (played effectively by Eric Lynch) who escaped the rough New York ghetto of his youth to go to prep school and Harvard and now is a prosperous lawyer moving back to his old neighborhood, for no other reason than real estate, to be an unabashed force for and benefactor of gentrification. With him comes his attractive white girlfriend Suzy (Lee Stark, suitably earnest) and his best friend Don (a lively Shane Kenyon), a white rich kid who’s lived his adult life to date in a spiral of addiction and rehab. Not surprisingly, complications arise both externally, when Suzy experiences a fear-tinged discomfort over a daily gauntlet of catcalls from a group of neighborhood guys hanging out near their apartment, and internally, where the seemingly equal love Jackson holds for Suzy and for Don strives for an unrealistic equilibrium. Director Jessica Thebus drives home Jackson’s dilemma by at times arranging the actors in a neat (love) triangle on a stage set with audiences on all four sides, designed by Walt Spangler as a sort of Ikea model apartment amidst the graffiti-tagged street signs of a neighborhood still in the early phase of its gentrification. That the characters never seem fully real, more archetypes than human beings, is the central fault of this production. But the concerns they exist to stir up, though not new, remain urgently relevant in a culture that still seems to think it’s understandable to kill a young black man for wearing a hoodie or for playing loud music obnoxiously.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Smokefall/Goodman Theatre

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Katherine Keberlein, Mike Nussbaum, Eric Slater, Guy Massey and Catherine Combs/Photo: Liz Lauren

Katherine Keberlein, Mike Nussbaum, Eric Slater, Guy Massey and Catherine Combs/Photo: Liz Lauren


I kept thinking about the story of my parents’ oft-discussed first meeting—at a dance hall in Fargo, North Dakota sometime at the dawn of the JFK era—as I watched one of the best plays of the year, Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall,” in its world premiere at the Goodman earlier this week. And how, if not for a thousand factors of chance, that meeting had not occurred, or had not gone well, and my world, the world of my wife and children, of my brothers and their families—the life that is everything to me and nothing of consequence to most others—does not exist.

An existential scream baked inside a birthday cake, “Smokefall” forces contemplation of the nature of domestic life, and the meaning of life, through a production that commences with a surreal-tinted realism (telegraphed before the curtain by Kevin Depinet’s slightly off-kilter wonder of a set) and progresses through a slightly too-long shtick-driven duo of fraternal twins inside the womb with a predilection for singing Sondheim and into a second act where time, space and generations overlap and blend together. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pullman Porter Blues/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Marshall, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks /Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Marshall, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks/Photo: Liz Lauren


Director Chuck Smith has taken Cheryl L West’s play about three generations of African-American porters working on a luxury Pullman train bound from Chicago to New Orleans on June 22, 1937—the night that Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock at Comiskey Park and became heavyweight champion of the world and hero to Black America—and crafted an engaging entertainment with a little bit of history, a fair bit of bite, a dose of predictability and a ton of heart and soul.

Grandfather Monroe Sykes (the delightful Larry Marshall) has helped grandson Cephas (the earnest Tosin Morohunfola)—AWOL from his classes at the University of Chicago, where he was the family hope to become a doctor—get a summer porter gig on the Panama Limited Pullman Train, not knowing that his son and the boy’s father, Sylvester Sykes (the loving and lovable firebrand Cleavant Derricks), a labor organizer, would also work that run. West’s script draws sharply contrasted characters here—the go-along-to-get-along grandfather not far enough removed from slavery to want to rustle feathers, the son who’s no longer willing to suffer the abuse of a system of institutional and economic racism, and the grandson who’s enjoying the fruits of his forebears labors, but is too young to know whether he’s prepared to buy into their plan for him. Their story together is a moving and authentic intergenerational tale that will connect with audiences of any time and any color. When they sing together in harmony, their moving music says everything about the unity of family even in the face of personal differences. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Teddy Ferrara/Goodman Theatre

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A suicide is always a tragedy. And in the hands of various interest groups and media outlets, as agendas are pushed and stories are filtered or distorted, a tragedy can become a travesty.

Inspired by and roughly based on the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, playwright and Pulitzer finalist Christopher Shinn’s latest work, currently receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, tackles this heavy subject matter with a solid dose of unexpected comedy while attempting (and mostly succeeding) at remaining above polemics and finger-pointing.

Though a few of Shinn’s points feel obvious, under the direction of Evan Cabnet, most are subtle and poignant. Most notably, as the eponymous freshman student Teddy Ferrara, Ryan Heindl arrives on stage socially awkward enough so that when he mutters the line, “yeah, my roommate is kind of weird” it gets a hearty laugh. But this easy laughter at a social misfit should give us pause later as Teddy’s story unfolds further.
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Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Yando/Photo: Liz Lauren


Thirty-five years ago, Goodman Theatre debuted its first production of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic at the suggestion of now-executive director Roche Schulfer, and changed the face of Chicago theater for good. Though that first production was an expensive and risky undertaking, its success became the bedrock for the audience-driven component of financing Chicago theater, as not only did Goodman put it into perpetual repeat, but so too did almost every theater company in town develop their own annual holiday production as a box-office sure thing.

Though those of us who, for personal or professional reasons, see the show many times over might be inclined to obsess over what ultimately minor shifts in staging and casting invariably take place over time, the reality is that Goodman has this one down to a science, especially under the helm of stalwart director Steve Scott. And especially with Larry Yando playing Ebenezer Scrooge, a role that recalls his even-less-redemptive turn as that other theatrical rogue, Roy Cohn, in last year’s production of “Angels in America” at Court. Yando’s mastery of vile is unparalleled, but so too is his transformation into the joyfully benevolent Scrooge here, where he gets to show some chops for physical comedy. Read the rest of this entry »